Summary: We have much to give thanks for on this holiday, for we are the lucky country. Our challenge is to deserve that good fortune, and wisely use the prosperity, power, and security that it has allowed us to create.
“Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.”
— The opening words of the last chapter to Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country (1964). They apply as well to America.
America is a counterfactual, our history one of good fortune at key moment in time — without which our nation might not have been born.
Some of these events are recent and well known. The famous “lost orders” that allowed the Union to avoid crushing defeat at Antietam in September 1862. The carriers’ absence from Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. And the “fateful five minutes” at Midway. But others are lost amidst our memories of the accomplishments this good fortune allowed.
For descriptions of this lost history I recommend reading “Unlikely Victory – Thirteen Ways the Americans Could Have Lost the Revolution” by Thomas Fleming, in What If? edited by Robert Crowley (1999). Here is Crowley’s introduction:
The American Revolution is practically a laboratory of counterfactual history. There is hardly an opportunity for an alternative scenario that doesn’t exist in those 8 years (1775-1783). At times, as Thomas Fleming demonstrates, the unexpected seems the only real certainty.
- Sometimes sheer luck intervenes. A British marksman has Washington in his sights and doesn’t pull the trigger.
- Commanders display too much or too little caution.The British make a picture-perfect landing on Manhattan Island, and then pause to wait for reinforcements while George Washington and his Continentals slip the noose.At the Battle of the Cowpens, Banastre Tarleton, like the emperor Valens at Adrianople, is too impetuous, and the Americans hold on in the South. (There are times when a short rest and a good breakfast could have changed history.)
- Gambles work. Washington attacks Trenton in a Christmas night snowstorm and reinvigorates the patriot cause.
- Good or bad choices are made under stress. Benedict Arnold disobeys orders at Saratoga, and the results is an American victory. Would the French have joined the war on our side otherwise ?
- Animosities influence events. In a turf struggle, The British commander in chief, Sir Henry Clinton, tells his Southern commander, Charles, Lord Cornwallis, to retreat to an obscure Virginia tobacco port called Yorktown, fortify it, and ship much of his army back north.
- The vagaries of weather are a given, of course, as they always have been in military operations. Take the two violent storms that sealed the fate of the British troops trapped at Yorktown in October 1781 : The first prevented a rescue fleet from sailing from New York harbor and the second, a breakout attempt across the York River a few days later. How different would the outcome of the Revolution have been if the British had escaped?
By any reasonable stretch of the imagination, Fleming reminds us, the United States should have expired at birth. We were hardly inevitable.
We have much to be grateful for on this and every thanksgiving. So far we have not lived up to our gifts. The 19th century was a horror show of slavery and the KKK, mistreatment of native Americans, oppression of workers and small farmers. The early 20th century was little better, featuring colonial oppression, racism, and labor suppression.
But WWII and the decades afterwards put us on the fast track of history. Leading the alliance that defeated fascism, followed by magnanimity in victory. Building the great-post war global institutions to create a new world order and the domestic programs that created the middle class. Apollo.
Unfortunately that moment didn’t last, and we’ve become just a nation of grasping plutocrats seeking domestic power and empire abroad. While eating turkey, we should not just give thanks but resolve again to be worthy of our good fortune.
Other posts about Thanksgiving, about things we should be grateful for
- An effective way to support our Troops: help the Blue Star Mothers of America, 8 June 2008 — There are ways to support our troops, actions more effective than a bumper sticker on your car.
- A Thanksgiving Day note, 25 November 2010
- Looking back on USMC thanksgivings, reminding us of things for which we should be grateful, 24 November 2011
Painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris of 1621 feast at Plymouth, courtesy of Wiki Commons.